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Anders Nilsen and the not-quite lost art of drawing a great book

Of drawing, Anders Nilsen says, “It’s a really relevant skill, and it’s important that it not be lost.”

Anders Nilsen
CC/Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone
Anders Nilsen

Slowly, with great digging in of heels, I am accepting that the way we read books is changing. One in four books sold this year is an e-book, and retailers are indicating that an awful lot of people have some kind of e-reader twitching quietly under their Christmas tree this year, meaning that number will go up substantially in the next year. 

So yeah, books as we know them are becoming something else. But not all of them! Anders Brekhus Nilsen is making books that need to be on paper. One of today’s most influential comic artists, Nilsen makes books that are physical objects of great and uncommon beauty. They are published by Drawn & Quarterly with all the care and attention to detail you see in the handmade works by the artists at the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts.

Nilsen grew up in Minneapolis, drawing nonstop and reading Tintin comics and occasionally ducking into one of the comic book shops or museums for inspiration.

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“Minneapolis has such a strong art scene and music scene,” he said in an interview. “It was pretty important and influential to me, to be surrounded by the punk scene and independent culture of all sorts. I remember stumbling across some of first self-published ’zines, like Art Police, and that had a huge impact on me, to see all the amazing, interesting, and cool creative stuff people were doing. So much art is self-generated here.”

Nilsen’s “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow” is an intimate account of his relationship and the death of his fiancée, Cheryl Weaver. The book is a peek into the journals of two creative people, with postcards and letters pulled from a notebook and drawings from Nilsen’s ever-present sketchpad. The images of Weaver’s funeral, showing hundreds of people gathered on a shore, each figure drawn with exquisite sadness, are some of the powerful moments in the last two decades of comic art. The book is now back in print; the original print run was intended to be limited and mostly for friends and family.

“I didn’t want it to become the book I was known for,” said Nilsen. “I was proud of it as a work of art. It went out of print pretty quickly but found this audience and it seemed to connect with people and have a lot of impact. Then it started showing up on eBay for a couple hundred bucks. I didn’t want it to be something only people with extra hundred bucks could get, so it was time to bring it back.”

“Big Questions,” a collection of more than a decade of Nilsen’s work, explores deep philosophical questions about life and death through a collection of tiny birds struggling to make sense of human activities and their own purpose. It’s at times funny, more often heartbreaking. The story line builds quietly across more than 650 pages — huge and remarkable.

Last January, Nilsen moved back to the Twin Cities from Chicago to teach comics at MCAD. He notes that MCAD has offered comics classes longer than almost any school in the country; it’s still an unusual offering, but interest in comics is growing everywhere.

“People generally come to comics because they love to draw. But teaching comics is hard, because there is so much else to think about. All the mechanics of storytelling, dialogue, rhythm, character, plot — and also drawing, design, color, and getting the story across in images. My students’ drawing skills are really high, they are very accomplished. The skill they need to learn the most is writing skills,” he says.

“[Comic artist] Chris Ware talks about comics as pictures that are supposed to be read instead of looked at. It’s not just about making a beautiful picture, its about making a picture that will push the reader forward through the story.”

Despite the rise of comics and graphic novels as an art form and as an important facet of current book publishing, Nilsen feels drawing has become something of a lost art. He watches his young niece drawing all the time, and wonders if she’ll keep it up. When Nilsen draws in public, people often stop and gawk.

“I was in Colombia this summer drawing in a café with some friends and I was drawing a dog on the floor, and the owner loved it, and another couple with a dog asked me to draw their dog, too. Its kind of fun when it happens — people don’t draw anymore. Drawing was how pictures appeared in newspapers and how advertising happened in the 1900s and everyone did it. Now everyone has a digital camera in their phone and photography is the form of the moment. Drawing is a relic. It’s gotten to the point where no one in the room knows how to draw. We can all take pictures and make them beautiful, but when it comes to ideas, no one has the ability to put bodies in a scene and visualize an idea. It’s a really relevant skill, and it’s important that it not be lost.”


Reading, Saturday, 7 p.m. Dec. 8. Boneshaker Books, Minneapolis.